GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Patric Young’s body language and demeanor at the end of Saturday’s victory over Mississippi State did not sit well with Gators coach Billy Donovan.
He took note that Young, after a modest six-point, seven-rebound outing against the Bulldogs, sulked on the bench in the final seconds of a 25-point win in which Young’s counterpart, Mississippi State center Gavin Ware, finished with 16 points and six rebounds.
Donovan challenged Young in practice Sunday and the rest of the week leading up to Tuesday night’s home game against No. 25 Kentucky and freshman big man Nerlens Noel.
Donovan’s message to Young was to think team over individual performance, a theme Donovan then hammered home to the rest of the Gators as they tried to snap a five-game losing streak against the Wildcats.
Young wasn’t sulking after the No. 7 Gators (20-3, 10-1 in SEC) rolled over the Wildcats 69-52 at a sold-out O’Connell Center, extending their lead in the SEC to two games over Kentucky (17-7, 8-3).
Instead, the junior from Jacksonville could barely stand as he clutched his midsection with a big smile on his face.
“I started cramping up, going too hard out there,” Young said after his 12-point, 11-rebound, four-block performance.
Young’s sixth double-double of the season overshadowed anything Noel did before having to leave the game with a left knee injury with 8:03 remaining.
Noel, who averages nearly a double-double (10.6 points, 9.6 rebounds) and leads the nation with 4.5 blocks per game, had eight points, six rebounds and three blocks.
Maybe Donovan should challenge Young every game.
“It’s really hard to see [how you will respond] at the beginning,” Young said. “But when you come back and reflect on it, it’s usually a deeper issue you’re going through. There were just distractions for me. Worried about reaching expectations and goals.”
Young said he avoided Twitter and other potential distractions leading up to the game and his matchup against Noel, considered the leading candidate to be named SEC Freshman of the Year and a lottery pick in the NBA Draft should he leave school after the season.
He took Donovan’s advice and focused on what he could do to help his teammates come out with a victory. He tried not to think about the 16 NBA scouts in attendance.
“I’ve got to come out here — he’s a great player — I’ve got to play my game, do my job the best I can,” Young said. “I felt so free and didn’t feel like I had to worry about anything. I didn’t care there were scouts out there. I didn’t care [if] I had two points. I didn’t care about that first foul. I just wanted to play hard and give in everything I had.”
Those cramps at the end of the game told Young he had.
Teammate Mike Rosario saw Young at his best.
“I thought Pat did a great job of being physical,” Rosario said. “To be 6-9, 6-10, 250 [pounds] and running the floor like that … I just felt like he was laying it all on the line for our team. That’s what we need out of our big guy.”
Young stayed composed after picking up his first foul only 98 seconds into the game on a Noel shot attempt. Young didn’t pick up another foul the rest of the game, providing Florida with an inside presence at both ends of the court while fellow forward Erik Murphy spent time on the bench in the first half with two fouls.
Noel only took only five shots and finished with one offensive rebound as Young clogged the lane.
“We couldn’t get near the basket on Young,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He just physically took away the rim.”
Kentucky tried to get Noel into the flow offensively on its second possession after halftime, but Young bodied him up and forced him to miss a right hook shot. Young then grabbed the rebound, a play that typified their matchup Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Young also drew multiple charges in one of his better all-around performances of the season.
Donovan was impressed with how Young responded in the pivotal SEC matchup.
“I let him play through [the early foul] a little bit more than I normally have in the past,” Donovan said. “That was him doing a really good job of being disciplined, staying down and holding his position. He gave us a very, very good game with his effort.
“When he gives incredible effort and plays with a really good motor, he is capable of getting double-doubles every night. I thought he did a very good job. He got down in certain areas of the floor to score, he rebounded, he made great effort plays, he kept balls alive.”
Donovan said his biggest concern going into the game was Kentucky’s size advantage inside with Noel and 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein coming off the bench. Cauley-Stein managed 10 points and six rebounds but most of his production came after the game was out of reach.
Young knew what he had to do.
“They have great size in their frontcourt. I was able to do a good job without fouling,” Young said. “It feels good to get a win against Kentucky.”
There was no sulking Tuesday, only high-fives and hugs afterward. Young led the way.
“It definitely fuels the team,” teammate Casey Prather said of Young’s energy. “You see your big man working, running the floor, getting rebounds, getting out there and scrapping, it just helps us. We feel like we have to come out there and match his intensity.”